The timings of the title of this film reveal the unpalatable truth of Solomon Northup’s kidnap, that slavery is a removal of liberty, without known end. ‘Years a Slave’ appears first, in print, then the number twelve in script, a figure of hindsight and a prefiguring of time in the film itself. Twelve years is unbearable, but life, a lifetime of slavery, is unforgiveable; as Solomon says following his capture ‘I do not want to survive, I want to live’.
Later comes the excruciating scene of Solomon’s hanging, keeping himself from asphyxiating by just the tips of his toes, sliding in the mud, no one with the authority to cut him down; a long, slow, indefinite period of lynching, he cannot breath, he cannot speak, he cannot move. Despite the sheer rawness of the violence in this film, it is this choking paralysis that really challenges the viewer to watch.
This is also a film about spaces, small, enclosed bodily spaces, and a film about skin; torn, rendered, bruised and bloodied skin, skin as justification for dehumanising a person into property. When Solomon is ‘loaned’ to another plantation, he and the others are warned by their ‘owner’ to behave or he will ‘take it out on’ their skin – justification and excuse for as well as site of brutality. Lupita Nyong’o, who plays the tortured Patsey, is absolutely right when she says that Steve McQueen shines a torch ‘underneath the floorboards […] reminding us what it is we stand on’.